Monday, March 25, 2019

Genetic Data Suggests That Early Modern Humans Migrated From South to East Africa

Science Daily is running a story that supports the idea that modern humans migrated from South to East Africa before exiting the continent.  Up until recently, all of the evidence seemed to suggest that South Africa, while having evidence of modern humans at Klasies Rivers Mouth, Border Cave and other sites, did not contribute to the migration out of Africa.  That has changed.
The Huddersfield-Minho team of geneticists, led by Professor Martin Richards at Huddersfield and Dr Pedro Soares in Braga, along with the eminent Cambridge archaeologist Professor Sir Paul Mellars, have studied the maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA from Africans in unprecedented detail, and have identified a clear signal of a small-scale migration from South Africa to East Africa that took place at just that time, around 65,000 years ago. The signal is only evident today in the mitochondrial DNA. In the rest of the genome, it seems to have been eroded away to nothing by recombination -- the reshuffling of chromosomal genes between parents every generation, which doesn't affect the mitochondrial DNA -- in the intervening millennia.
Before going further, it is worth noting that purveyors of the mtDNA evidence have been burned before by incorrectly using the programs to input the information. Originally, those results supported a hard-line Out-of-africa model of modern human origins (Stringer and Andrews 1988), a model we now know is incorrect. Onward.The paper is available through Scientific Reports, which is open-access.  What is missing from this hypothesis is good human fossil material from South Africa which is between 160 and 200 ky.  The most current remains we have are around 120k.  More work needs to be done on this.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

More Information From Denisova

Nature News is reporting about some more evidence from Denisova, following up on the bombshell news last year that bones discovered there belonged to a person (who they named “Denny”) who's father was a Denisovan and mother a Neandertal. From the story:
In the years that followed the discovery of Denisovans, scientists used DNA sequencing to attribute a few molar teeth from the cave to the same group4. They have also found other remains that harboured Neanderthal DNA. The analysis of Denny fills in some important details about the two groups. “We knew that Denisovans and Neanderthals had been there. We just didn’t think they interacted this intimately,” says [Svante] Pääbo. “It was so amazing to find direct proof — to find these people in the act, almost, of mixing.”

Denny’s discovery has also convinced Pääbo and other scientists that the remains of similar individuals, with recent ancestry from two groups of hominin, will be found — perhaps also in Denisova Cave. Researchers who analysed Denny’s genome found signs that the chromosome set that was contributed by her father, although clearly Denisovan, harboured some Neanderthal ancestry, which hints at earlier encounters between the groups2. “We should be able to pick up these individuals,” says [Katerina] Douka.
The Denisova cave appears to have been occupied for several hundred thousand years, being originally settled by either Denisovans or Neandertals, no one is sure which. Subsequent to this, it is unclear how much interbreeding actually occurred. 
“It’s still a head scratcher,” adds Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford, UK, who works with Douka and Brown. “It’s either an incredible piece of luck, or interbreeding happens so frequently that we might expect to find these types of occurrence in the archaeological record.”
One thing becomes increasingly clear with each new discovery, however: the complete replacement model of modern human origins, as espoused by Stringer and Andrews, is dead.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

More Evidence For Bipedality at 4.5 MYA

Out of Case Western Reserve comes a study of some new fossil material that sheds like on early human bipedal adaptation.  From ScienceDaily:
Scott W. Simpson, PhD, led an analysis of a 4.5 million-year-old fragmentary female skeleton of the human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus that was discovered in the Gona Project study area in the Afar Regional State of Ethiopia.

The newly analyzed fossils document a greater, but far from perfect, adaptation to bipedalism in the Ar. ramidus ankle and hallux (big toe) than previously recognized. "Our research shows that while Ardipithecus was a lousy biped, she was somewhat better than we thought before," said Simpson.
While the weight of evidence has always a bit more than slightly favored the facultative bipedality of Ardipithecus ramidus, this research provides greater support for this hypothesis.  In my class, I stress the difference between facultative bipedality (practiced by Ardipithecus) and obligate bipedality (practiced by every other hominin).  Additionally, from the article1:
The more complete adoption of bipedality in the australopiths resulted in the loss of functionally critical adaptations to arboreality present in Ardipithecus such as a grasping, opposable hallux, an antero-posteriorly broad pelvis with reorganization of the origin (and most likely function) of the hamstring muscles, and a more derived humero-femoral ratio. The changes in the size and structure of the dentition in the subsequent australopiths (larger molar and premolar crowns, increased enamel thickness, more robust mandibles) indicates a major behavioral and dietary shift for most hominins (perhaps excluding the species indicated by the Burtele foot) that occurred about 4.2 Ma with the earliest appearance of Australopithecus (Leakey et al., 1995, White et al., 2006).
Many of these changes, then, appear to have occurred somewhat rapidly, once the early hominins moved away from the forest and into the fringe.  Once we thought that bipedality originated in the forest/fringe.  The Ardipithecus data have killed this hypothesis. 

1Scott W. Simpson, Naomi E. Levin, Jay Quade, Michael J. Rogers, Sileshi Semaw. Ardipithecus ramidus postcrania from the Gona Project area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia. Journal of Human Evolution, 2019; 129: 1 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.12.005

Monday, March 04, 2019

Neandertals Had Same Gait as Modern Humans

A virtual reconstruction of the skeleton of the La Chapelle Neandertal has revealed that Neandertals had exactly the same bipedal pattern that modern humans had.  From the ScienceDaily article:
Since the 1950s, scientists have known that the image of the Neanderthal as a hunched over caveman is not an accurate one. Their similarities to ourselves -- both in evolutionary and behavioral terms -- have also long been known, but in recent years the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. "Focusing on the differences is back in fashion," says Martin Haeusler, UZH specialist in evolutionary medicine. For instance, recent studies have used a few isolated vertebrae to conclude that Neanderthals did not yet possess a well-developed double S-shaped spine.

However, a virtual reconstruction of the skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints has now delivered evidence to the contrary. This computer-generated anatomical model was created by the research group led by Martin Haeusler from the University of Zurich and included Erik Trinkaus from Washington University in St. Louis. The researchers were able to show that both the individual in question as well as Neanderthals in general had a curved lumbar region and neck -- just like the humans of today.
This is the final nail in the coffin of the absolutely atrocious report that came out in 1913, written by Marcelin Boule1, in which he described the skeleton of the La Chapelle Neandertal as stooped over and primitive, doing his best to derail any possibility that Neandertals were related to modern humans.  Boule's work is an object lesson in how an, otherwise, respected scientist can let personal opinions completely cloud their scientific judgement. 

1Boule M (1911-13) L’homme fossile de La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Ann Paléontol 6:111–172, 7:21–56, 85–192, 8:1–70